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Sports Leagues and Athletes Flex ‘Soft Power' Against Russia Over Ukraine Invasion

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  • Sports organizations and professional athletes are hitting Russia with their own kinds of sanctions as Vladimir Putin's military persists in its invasion of Ukraine.
  • FIFA suspended all Russian teams from games until further notice, as the federation gears up for this year's World Cup.
  • Russia is also facing pressure from hockey organizations. The nation is known for producing superstars in the sport.

Sports organizations and professional athletes are hitting Russia with their own kinds of sanctions as Russian President Vladimir Putin's military persists in its invasion of Ukraine.

The most consequential action, so far, has come from the world's top soccer federation.

On Monday, FIFA joined the Union of European Football Associations to announce it would bar Russian teams from events, including the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, until further notice. That move came days after Poland and Sweden refused to play Russia in World Cup qualifying matches. The World Cup is scheduled to start in November.

The International Olympic Committee also recommended banning Russian teams from competitions for violating the "Olympic Truce." Liberty Media-owned Formula One could relocate an event. The National Hockey League has spoken out, too.

"Sometimes sport is successful by using their leverage to turn things around," said Dr. Harvey Schiller, former executive director of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "Every country now is part of a global economy," he added. "And when you're part of a global economy, and there's been free exchange for so long, this (war in Ukraine) upset the apple cart."

Focus on hockey

Out of the four major U.S. leagues, the NHL has the most ties to Russia due to its over two dozen Russian-born hockey players. The league said it supported its players days after Russian NHL superstar Alex Ovechkin was asked his thoughts on the matter and walked a tight line.

The Washington Capitals star said the invasion was out of his control, adding it's a "sad situation right now for both sides." Ovechkin called for "no more war" and noted, "I have a family back in Russia, and it's scary moments."

Ovechkin, a three-time NHL MVP, said: "I hope soon, it's going to be over, and it's going to be peace in the whole world."

But Ovechkin received backlash for not condemning Putin, the Russian president. "I'm not involved in politics. I'm an athlete," the hockey legend said.

John Russell | National Hockey League | Getty Images
Wayne Gretzky records his podcast, "The Great One on 1," at Blackbird Studio in Nashville, Tennessee, on Wednesday, May 15, 2019.

Former NHL players struck a different tone. NHL legend Wayne Gretzky labeled Russia's invasion a "senseless war." Now a hockey analyst for Turner Sports, Gretzky also suggested the International Ice Hockey Federation ban Russia from the 2023 junior championships.

On Monday, hockey's governing body granted the request and banned players from Russia and Belarus in every age category. Belarus has aided Russia's invasion of Ukraine by providing a staging area for part of the attack.

In a statement, IIHF president Luc Tardif said the organization isn't a "political entity and cannot influence the decisions being taken over the war in Ukraine." Yet, "nevertheless have a duty of care to all of our members and participants and must therefore do all we can to ensure that we are able to operate our events in a safe environment for all teams taking part in the IIHF World Championship program."

Meanwhile, retired NHL goaltending great Dominik Hasek, who is Czech, called for a more extreme measure, suggesting the NHL should suspend contracts of all Russian players.

Alexei Yashinof Russia shoots wide as Jan Hrdinaand Dominik Hasekof the Czech Republic guard the goal during the first period of their quarterfinal match of the men's ice hockey competition at the XIX Winter Olympic Games 20 February 2002 in Provo, Utah.
George Frey | AFP | Getty Images
Alexei Yashinof Russia shoots wide as Jan Hrdinaand Dominik Hasekof the Czech Republic guard the goal during the first period of their quarterfinal match of the men's ice hockey competition at the XIX Winter Olympic Games 20 February 2002 in Provo, Utah.

Schiller, the longtime sports executive and former president of the former Atlanta Thrashers franchise, said that move would go too far.

"They should play, and that's the appropriate thing," Schiller said of Russian players staying in NHL competition. "These players are not oligarchs; they're different. When you're playing in the NHL, you're not representing your country, you're representing yourself."

The NHL also suspended agreements with Russian companies. In September, the NHL struck its first exclusive deal in Russia after agreeing to terms with sports betting company Liga Stavok. The league added it would stop Russian language social media and digital sites and wouldn't consider Russia for future NHL events.

The NHL said it understands players "and their families are being placed in an extremely tough position" because Russia is an authoritarian country. Hence, players' comments could endanger family members and risk their future in Russia. 

But the league's public stance on Russia could take a bit of pressure off NHL players being questioned about the matter.

"Business is not going to be as usual," while the invasion persists, Schiller said. He added, "if I was a scout for the NHL, I'm not getting on a plane and going to Russia. That's not going to happen."

Trucks display electronic messages while protestors demonstrate outside United Nations headquarters, as inside diplomats hold an emergency session of the 193-member U.N. General Assembly on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Manhattan in New York City, February 28, 2022.
Mike Segar | Reuters
Trucks display electronic messages while protestors demonstrate outside United Nations headquarters, as inside diplomats hold an emergency session of the 193-member U.N. General Assembly on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Manhattan in New York City, February 28, 2022.

Basketball, soccer and judo, too

Players in the WNBA also demonstrated their condemnation of Russia's invasion. 

ESPN reported WNBA players who play in the region during the offseason would seek to depart. In a statement to the news organization, WNBA said players are no longer in Ukraine and added the "league has also been in contact with WNBA players who are in Russia, either directly or through their agents. We will continue to closely monitor the situation."

International sports sanctions are where Russia could experience a unique kind of discomfort, said Declan Hill, a professor at the University of New Haven

Hill said organizations are showing "sport has soft power with immense importance" by banning Russian participation in events. He added FIFA's World Cup decision would impact Russia the most.

"Soccer to the average Russian is as big as the National Football League is to the average American," said Hill, an expert on corruption in international sports. "It's a massive cultural phenomenon."

The IOC also recommended the ban of Belarus athletes from competition as the country is aligned with Russia under the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. Last week, F1 said it's "impossible" to hold the Russian Grand Prix "in the current conditions," which threatens the race that's scheduled for September.

Russian President Vladimir Putintakes part in a judo training session during a meeting with Russian national judo team in Moscow on January 8, 2016.
Alexey Nikolsky | AFP | Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putintakes part in a judo training session during a meeting with Russian national judo team in Moscow on January 8, 2016.

In perhaps the most personal blow, the International Judo Federation stripped Putin's status as honorary president and ambassador. Former pro boxers and Ukraine natives Wladimir Klitschko and Vitali Klitschko received praise for vowing to fight and defend the country from Russian invasion. Vitali Klitschko is also the mayor of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, which has so far repelled Russian attacks.

"This is a moment in society where we understand things like life and death are more important than sports," said Hill, adding that it's "profoundly important" for sports organizations to "say and do the right things."

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